Curating the Savage

Bedouin Family. Jordan, undated.

Bedouin family. Jordan, undated.

Can colonialism collapse into post-colonialism through ironic self-exposure and self-parody?  It is misleading to think we can ridicule colonialism away, even if William Seabrook’s career as a white voyeur among darker peoples certainly makes an excellent case for that position. 

Yet Seabrook was just another booze-addled American colonialist who wrote popular books describing travel to exotic overseas destinations.  He came to visit the natives and make money describing them in a thoroughly old-school language of savagery and civilisation.  When at home Seabrook used his substantial royalties to satisfy a penchant for hanging women in chains.  Whether among Arabs, blacks, or white women, Seabrook was an enthusiast for under-control adventure.

Seabrook was a well-connected member of the literary Lost Generation who had gone lost until Joe Ollmann resurrected him in a new graphic biography, The Abominable Mr. Seabrook.  He was on social terms with Gertrude Stein, Aldous Huxley, Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Jean Cocteau, Salvatore Dali, and more.  Man Ray released and fed a naked woman chained to the stair bannister when he borrowed Seabrook’s Paris apartment, but thoughtfully designed an artistic collar for his friend’s paid slave-girls.  Man Ray, interested in Seabrook’s sadomasochism, added an aesthetic edge with bondage-themed photography.

Seabrook’s Adventures in Arabia (1927) earned him public attention when the exploits of T.E. Lawrence were still recent news.  The book attempted to follow in the tradition of Charles Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888) but was not nearly as well-written.  Doughty, unlike Seabrook, undertook to learn good Arabic and had some cultural competence.  Seabrook managed with English intermixed with a few Arabic phrases, a common patois of Western imperialists in the Middle East.  It was perhaps for the better, as he would not have understood justifiably less than pleasant Arabic comments made to his face with a smile.  He was an eager innocent, delighted to have escaped provincial origins.

Although Seabrook attempted to differentiate himself from British attitudes of racial superiority, he sought out Bedouin fraternity in a transparently romantic attempt to escape modernity at least temporarily.  What resulted was amateur ethnography written by a man who needed Bedouin robes and a camel to re-shape himself as an adventurer, an attractive figure for American publishers interested in the new field of mass-market anthropology.  Seabrook went on to write similar exotic get-away travelogues of Haiti in search of voodoo and zombies, two more Africa-related books, an autobiography, and more. 

In the 1930s, Seabrook gained a reputation for sitting down for a cannibal meal of human flesh while travelling in the Ivory Coast for his Jungle Ways (1930) book.  As with his search for a pure type among the Bedouin, in the Ivory Coast, “the blacks we encountered were still unspoiled in their unspoiled forest”.  Ever the advertising man, Seabrook seeks out information that he realizes will titillate Western readers, as when he examines a young woman’s recent clitoral circumcision and pronounces it no more than a reasonable sanitary measure.  To please a local chief, he concocts an aphrodisiac to improve the old fellow’s sex life. 

The real selling point of the book—omitted in its Ladies Home Journal serialisation—was its long section on cannibalism.  Seabrook later admitted that his report was false but eventually did have a friend’s cook in Paris unknowingly prepare dishes from some human flesh obtained through a hospital morgue attendant.  Seabrook enjoyed himself; his wife, aware of the meat’s origins, tasted and threw up.  When in the Ivory Coast, Seabrook—who as an ambulance attendant was gassed at Verdun—had the intelligence to realise, albeit in a too-brief passage, that a European ‘civilization’ that sent millions of men to die in front of massed machine guns had no right to call any other culture ‘savage’.

Seabrook was at his most appealing when he wrote about his own human frailty, his alcoholism.  In Asylum (1935) he recounted seven months of institutionalisation to cure the alcohol addiction he never learned to control.  He began to confront the psychological demons of his early life, the haunting fears on which he fed, and his stunted emotional capacity for empathy.  By 1945, Seabrook’s writing career was a complete failure. He had been re-hospitalised for three months due to persistent alcoholism and committed suicide. 

The book’s blue-and-grey artwork is compelling and suits the sombre nature of much of this life story.  Joe Ollmann’s layout employs a sturdy basic nine-cell frame that carries the scenes and script well, varying that design as narrative punctuation.  The facial visualisation of Seabrook is particularly effective in capturing the moods of a man’s deeply troubled personality. 

At a certain point in this 300-page volume, one begins to ask what attracted Ollman to this decade-long and heavily researched project. In an interview with The Comics Journal, Joe Ollman expressed his disquiet with Seabrook’s unlikeable character:

“At the beginning of the book I think I liked him because he’s a fun guy and a crazy adventurer, and he was very honest about his vices and that kind of stuff. But I think I liked him a lot less by the end of it.” 

To Ollman’s credit, he lets Seabrook’s tragic story speak for itself rather than indulge in unnecessary overt criticism.  That becomes the reader’s task. 

Photograph courtesy of Maureen. Published under a Creative Commons license.